Female Australian doctoral graduates ‘out-earn men’

Rare example of a reverse gender pay gap suggests that at least early on, female and male PhDs are on a level pay pegging

September 20, 2021
gender pay gap
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Australia’s female doctoral students can expect earnings roughly on par with those of their male counterparts for at least a few years after they graduate, according to new research that challenges the ubiquity of the gender pay gap.

A survey of more than 33,000 Australians who graduated three years ago has found that women with postgraduate research degrees commanded median incomes A$400 (£211) a year higher than similarly qualified men.

The finding, revealed in this year’s Graduate Outcomes Survey – Longitudinal report, represents a rare instance of female graduates out-earning men – albeit by just 0.4 per cent. Previous surveys also indicated that the gender pay gap was far less pronounced for PhD graduates than bachelor’s and master’s graduates.

Over the three years that the survey has monitored the gender pay gap for different qualification levels, male master’s graduates have earned up to 23 per cent more than their female counterparts, while the differential at doctoral level has not exceeded 4 per cent.

The survey is part of the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) suite of higher education performance data. The surveys are funded by the federal education department and conducted by the Australian National University’s Social Research Centre.

Lisa Bolton, director of QILT research and strategy, urged caution in interpreting the latest results. She said that with only about 1,800 of the respondents holding doctoral qualifications, women’s median pay could have been affected by small numbers of PhD graduates commanding particularly high or low salaries. 

And because the figure was based on full-time annual earnings, the reported women’s median income was not influenced by part-time work. The survey showed that even three years out, 23 per cent of female PhD graduates were working part-time compared with 11 per cent of males.

“The survey also does not tease out the future impact on pay when more graduates go part-time or take breaks from their careers, for example to meet caring responsibilities,” Ms Bolton said. “And even where men and women have studied in the same disciplinary areas, other social and labour market forces seem to increase the gender pay gap over time.”

Nonetheless, the findings suggest that female doctoral graduates attract incomes comparable to men’s for at least the initial stages of their careers, countering perceptions that women earn less from the outset because they gravitate to lower-paid occupations.

Male respondents dominated doctoral completions in relatively lucrative areas like engineering, technology and computing, with women claiming more PhDs in lower-paid fields such as creative arts and the humanities. But they also overshadowed men in medicine, science, mathematics and even management and commerce.

The survey found that the gender pay gap for people with bachelor’s qualifications stood at A$3,000 or 5 per cent soon after graduation, rising to A$4,900 or 6 per cent after three years.

While the most pronounced gap was in architecture and built environment, where median pay was 21 per cent higher for men than women, male creative arts graduates also enjoyed a 10 per cent pay advantage over their female counterparts.

The report says that the pandemic has exerted only a small impact on graduate outcomes, with the full-time employment rate falling just 1 percentage point among people with bachelor’s degrees. This partly reflects the survey’s timing between February and March 2021, when Australia was mostly free of Covid-induced lockdowns.


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